The term ‘fertility’ is becoming more and more common in conversations, especially for those who are struggling with it. For some women, fertility means having to be extra careful during an afternoon rendezvous. For others, the concept of fertility is full of uncertainty. So how does fertility work and what influences how fertile a person is?
Fertility is defined as the “the ability to conceive,” and there are many factors that affect how fertility works, including age, health and your cycle. Below are a few of the many factors that can impact how fertility works, and what you need to know to take control of your own fertility.
We should all be familiar with the pieces and parts of the reproductive system, but how does fertility work when it’s all put together? In order to best know how to get pregnant, it's important to understand the different processes involved in conception. Although this may seem like old news, knowing how everything functions and the influence of outside factors have on the reproductive system can help you take control of your own fertility.
It all begins with four hormones, including follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), estrogen and progesterone. The brain releases FSH and LH, stimulating the beginning of the ovulation cycle. The ovaries begin maturing a woman’s eggs, where the rise in estrogen will then stimulates the movement of an egg from the ovary to the fallopian tube.
Once in the fallopian tube, the body releases progesterone that then initiates the development of the lovely uterine wall that sheds on a monthly basis. However, if the egg in the fallopian tube successfully meets a sperm and is fertilized, the egg will then drop into the uterus and find a place to settle in to develop for the next nine or so months. Despite the nuisance of the monthly “flow,” the uterine wall provides a critical bed of safety and nutrients for the embryo.
So now that we know about the basic mechanism and major players, it is important to understand how different factors influence this process and how fertility works.
A question commonly asked is “Can I get pregnant on my period?” While this may be an avenue for teenagers hoping to get away with condom-less sex with little to no risk of getting pregnant, it’s important to know how menstruation affects fertility.
Professionals agree that the chance of getting pregnant while on your period is low, but it’s still quite possible. A woman can start ovulating again just a few days after the end of her period, deepening on the length of her cycle. Sperm can live up to six days in a woman’s reproductive tract, depending on the circumstances, even during her period. Therefore, if sperm is present, even from an evening rendezvous a few nights past, when a woman begins ovulating a few days post-period, then there is a small chance that the sperm will find the new egg and fertilize it.
For most women, depending on the length of her cycle, she is most fertile 4 to 5 days after her period since estrogen and progesterone are at their highest as they begin to rebuild the uterine lining.
“Well you better get started now,” is a piece of advice given to many women who choose to wait until later into adulthood before conceiving. As insensitive as the statement may be, unfortunately, it holds truth, and it seems that the concept of age is never covered in traditional lectures on how to get pregnant. Since a woman is born with all of her eggs, there is a finite amount of opportunity to get pregnant. And with more and more women choosing to wait to conceive until later on in life, it is important to understand that unlike men, whose quality and quantity of sperm are not affected by age until much later, women are born with a biological clock.
However, not only are we limited in the number of opportunities to conceive, as women get older, the quality of her eggs also decline, reducing the chance of the sperm successfully fertilizing the egg. This process begins when the woman hits her 30s, and hits a sharp decline after the age of 35. The ovaries age, and the cycle begins to shorten, disrupting the normal ovulation cycle, causing fertility to decline through the 30s and finally into the 40s. The irregularity can also make the ovulation cycle far more difficult to track and conception even harder to achieve. While age may have one of the biggest impacts on how fertility works, keep in mind there are other methods that can help prolong this window for those who wish to wait without increasing her risk of infertility.
We’re always told that stress is bad for us, and that we need to take extra care to reduce our stress at any cost. While taking that extra yoga class and meditating 30 minutes a day isn’t covered in traditional ‘how to get pregnant’ material, effective stress management plays a critical role in how fertility works. It’s important to understand the actual physical effects of stress, particularly on fertility.
So how does fertility work under stress? First, chronic stress influences the amount of cortisol and epinephrine (hormones that induce and maintain the ‘fight or flight’ response) in your body. When this response is triggered, the hypothalamus is compromised. This results in irregular ovulation and makes it more difficult for women to pinpoint their most fertile days.
Also, some studies have identified a certain protein found in the uterine wall to be higher amongst women who had significantly lower levels of chronic stress. These proteins play a critical role in the implantation of the embryo in the uterus, and result in much higher success rates for those trying to conceive through in-vitro fertilization.
Between a stronger uterine lining and a more consistent, predictable cycle, it come to no surprise that stress management techniques have played a critical role in how fertility works in women.
After years of trying not to get pregnant, the role of birth control is hardly mentioned in understanding how to get pregnant when the time comes. With so many different types of birth control on the market it can be difficult to know which type may be the best for your needs. Apart from traditional barrier methods there are three types of birth control which directly impact the reproductive cycle: the birth control pill (often referred to as just “the pill”), other hormonal contraceptives and IUDs. So how does fertility work under the influence -- either past or present use -- of these methods?
The Pill and other hormonal contraceptives involve providing a dose of synthetic estrogen and progestin in order to completely disrupt the normal flow of hormones involved in the reproductive system. Also, depending on the type and brand, this method changes the uterine lining, preventing a fertilized embryo from implanting in the uterine wall.
It’s been argued that such methods could hinder the future level of fertility of a woman after prolonged use, but no such studies have confirmed this to be true. In fact, apart from the Depo shot, women return to their pre-birth control level of fertility in as little as a few days after stopping use. And in some cases, after stopping the pill, women actually experienced a surge of fertility a few days after their last dose.
IUDs, or intrauterine devices, are placed within the body preventing the ovulation cycle. While this method does not involve altering hormone levels within the body, they pose a threat for infection and possible sterilization as a result of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) -- although these side effects are very rare. Scientists think that, in many cases, PID is caused by STIs -- not necessarily the device itself. Despite the slight risk of infection, there is no evidence that shows IUDs negative impact on fertility in the long-term.
When selecting birth control, or choosing to switch, make sure you ask your doctor about the risks and any plans you might have for starting a family, even if those plans are as far as 5-10 years away.
Although women may have the seemingly more complicated role in fertility, it takes two to actually conceive. So how does fertility work in men? The primary purpose of the male reproductive system is to generate and transport sperm to fertilize a woman’s egg.
With over 100 million sperm per ejaculation, a mere 50% actually start moving through the woman’s reproductive tract after about an hour after the big moment. As simple as it may sound, very few actually make it to the egg, and only one will successfully fertilize the egg. Perhaps this is a prime example of survival of the fittest. However, if the sperm isn’t healthy enough to make the journey, this could cause fertility issues for a couple trying to get pregnant.
So what can your guy do to make sure his sperm are in great shape? Reducing stress, maintaining a healthy body weight and reducing negative lifestyle behaviors such as smoking and drinking alcohol are all proven to increase the concentration and health of sperm.
Another great way to help sperm along on their great migration is by using a sperm-friendly lubricant, such as Astroglide TTC. Specifically designed to not impede sperm's motility and pH balanced, you can feel confident the next time you head to the bedroom.
What else do you want to know about how fertility works? Are there any other factors you want to know more about or have experience with? Let us know by tweeting us @AstroglideTTC.